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A month after Ukraine liberated it, Kherson is still getting bombarded daily

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When the Ukrainian army liberated the southern city of Kherson a month ago, local residents celebrated the victory with optimism and tears of joy. But peace has not really returned. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports that Russian troops are less than a mile away and continue to shell the city every day.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Ihor Yevtyshenko hears the booms of missiles every day outside his pizza restaurant. Back when Kherson was occupied by Russian troops, he says he used to welcome that sound.

IHOR YEVTYSHENKO: (Through interpreter) It was like a lullaby for us because Ukrainian forces were targeting the places where the occupants were. We heard these explosions and knew they hit Russian soldiers and destroyed Russian equipment.

KAKISSIS: Last month, Ukrainian forces drove Russian soldiers to the other side of the Dnipro River. And from there, the Russians are now shelling Kherson repeatedly.

YEVTYSHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Yevtyshenko says his neighbors and customers are fleeing in droves. He sits in this cold, dark restaurant next to a plate filled with pieces of shrapnel instead of his spicy pepperoni pizza.

YEVTYSHENKO: (Through interpreter) The thing is, the situation here has actually gotten worse since liberation. You never know when a missile will hit your apartment, your shop, your neighborhood, your road. You can't drive from place to place without worrying what will happen next.

KAKISSIS: Local leaders in Kherson estimate that its population has shrunk by more than half since the Russian invasion in February. Many escaped during the occupation. The rest have fled the recent Russian shelling that has killed at least 19 people. Those who remain say they won't leave no matter what.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

OKSANA POHORELOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Oksana Pohorelova has stacked up bottles of filtered water in the corner of her cozy kitchen. The Russian strikes often cut off electricity and water.

POHORELOVA: (Through interpreter) I actually worked for the city's water utilities department. We stay at home now because we can't do our jobs. The Russians stole so much when they left - our municipal vehicles, our equipment, laptops, even our servers and our databases, everything.

KAKISSIS: She sips hot tea with her colleague Svitlana Zaitseva and her father, Mykola Biriukov.

MYKOLA BIRIUKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: They predict that people will soon return to Kherson, despite the curbs that shelling and damaged infrastructure.

SVITLANA ZAITSEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Zaitseva brings up her daughter, who fled in August during the occupation and is now trying to find work in a liberated Kherson.

ZAITSEVA: (Through interpreter) She has called me every morning and every evening since liberation. And every time, she ends the conversation the same way- I want to come home.

KAKISSIS: Biriukov points out that supermarkets are reopening after replacing Russian goods with Ukrainian products.

BIRIUKOV: (Through interpreter) You see a lot of people waiting in long lines to buy Ukrainian products again. They check to see that milk is Ukrainian, that eggs are Ukrainian because this is important for us.

KAKISSIS: Making sure Kherson is firmly Ukrainian is especially important to city council member Oksana Pohomii. We meet at one of the few cafes still open here.

OKSANA POHOMII: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: During the occupation, she secretly helped Ukraine's security services investigate locals who collaborated with Russian authorities.

POHOMII: (Through interpreter) You can support Russia but not in Ukraine. If you want to do that, just go to Russia. Move to Russia.

KAKISSIS: Everyone in town knows Pohomii, a grandmother with spiky, fire-red hair. She rages that Russian forces tortured and killed those who insisted on calling themselves Ukrainian patriots. She says she's stunned by how many locals turned on their neighbors and pledged allegiance to Russia.

POHOMII: (Through interpreter) Like my former classmate, who actually helped organize that bogus referendum to become part of Russia. It was so shocking to me because she's a teacher of Ukrainian history. And when we removed the Russian flag after liberation, she said, well, don't do that because the Russians could come back.

KAKISSIS: She says most collaborators have likely left for Russia or have been arrested. But suspicions remain. In a quiet neighborhood that looks largely abandoned, we spot the Ukrainian word for collaborator spray-painted in blue on a gray metal gate leading to someone's house. Two neighbors argue outside the gate. They declined to give their names to NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: A young woman insists the family living in the house worked closely with Russian soldiers, even repairing their vehicles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "It's not true," an older woman shouts back. "None of it is true. The woman who lives here is 87, and she can barely walk." The older woman pauses and then tries to rub off the spray paint.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "It cannot be erased," she says. And neither can the accusation.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kherson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST SONG, "KEEP ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.